Postmus On Brink Of Vacating His Plea Deal & Inviting A Trial

The criminal case against Bill Postmus, which hung in suspended animation for eight years as the others caught up in his depredations against the citizens and governmental structure he once led were themselves put through the grinder of the legal system, has again come into sharp focus. Already complicated, the matter now appears to be complexifying further as the two criminal attorneys representing him since the inception of the investigation that toppled him from his perch of power have withdrawn. His newest lawyer appears intent on rescinding the plea bargain Postmus entered into nearly seven years ago in which he acknowledged guilt with regard to a total of fourteen felonies.
The prospect of a criminal trial against Postmus, who bestrode San Bernardino County like a political colossus before he imploded in a sordid cascade of personal and revelatory public scandals beginning a decade ago, is threatening to dredge up and draw out even further revelations with regard to the manner in which San Bernardino County’s power elite operates in an environment where money is routinely traded for official access and action as well as favorable outcomes in the halls of governance and justice.
After Postmus testified last year in the marathon political corruption case involving three of his former political associates and one of his major campaign donors, Judge Michael A. Smith in October gave indication that he would sentence Postmus this month after making a review of Postmus’ trial testimony and considering the dual recommendations of the district attorney’s office and that contained in a probation department pre-sentencing report along with the input of Postmus’ two criminal defense attorneys, Stephen Levine and Richard Farquhar, in the form of written submissions, known as sentencing memorandums. Judge Smith ordered Postmus to return to his courtroom on January 19, at which point sentencing was to take place or further hearings or arguments on the matter were to be either heard or scheduled.
Well prior to January 19, Postmus was supposed to have submitted himself to an interview with either the Riverside County Probation Department or the San Diego County Probation Department, for the purpose of obtaining a recommendation of an appropriate sentence for him and his suitability for probation. One of those agencies was to make that examination and deliver a report in lieu of that analysis being carried out by the San Bernardino County Probation Department. Because of Postmus’ once vaunted status in San Bernardino County from which he oversaw and approved budgetary allotments for the San Bernardino County Probation Department, removing that analysis to Riverside County or San Diego County was deemed appropriate. But as of January 19 Postmus had not met with anyone from either the Riverside County or San Diego County probation departments. Moreover, he was moving toward reversing himself entirely, jettisoning his 2011 plea deal, firing both Levine and Farquhar as his legal representatives, and allowing his newly retained attorney, Jeffrey Lawrence, to go to battle against the district attorney’s office and contest the 14 criminal charges he had previously admitted to, up to and including going to trial.
Lawrence, however, maintaining he is not yet up to speed with regard to the case against his newest client, sought a postponement of sentencing so he could review the case files and see if he is indeed willing to commit to taking the matter to trial pursuant to Postmus’s withdrawal of his guilty plea.
Postmus’ sentencing has been held in abeyance since March 2011, when he entered into the plea agreement with prosecutors worked out by Faraquhar and Levine by which he committed to cooperate with prosecutors in their prosecution of his alleged accomplices and co-conspirators. In the immediate aftermath of his guilty plea Postmus met the prosecutors’ expectations, testifying as the star witness before a grand jury in April 2011 which was looking into a $102 million settlement conferred upon the Colonies Partners development consortium in November 2006 and the exchange of money that took place between the Colonies Partners and county officials within the ensuing eight months. That $102 million payout ended legal wrangling between the Colonies Partners and the county which related to disputes the company had with the county flood control district over drainage issues at the Colonies at San Antonio residential and Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivisions in northeast Upland. Following Postmus’ testimony, which was augmented with the testimony of more than 30 others, that grand jury in May 2011 handed down an indictment of Colonies Partners co-managing principal Jeff Burum; Postmus’ former board of supervisors colleague Paul Biane; former San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies union president Jim Erwin; and Mark Kirk, who had been the chief of staff to another of Postmus’ board colleagues, Gary Ovitt. According to the 29-count indictment, Burum had conspired with Erwin to threaten and blackmail Postmus and Biane into settling the lawsuit. The indictment alleged Erwin prepared but ultimately withheld “hit piece” mailers that targeted Postmus and Biane. Those mailers, according to prosecutors, took as their subject matter Postmus’ homosexuality and methamphetamine addiction and Biane’s financial travails which had him on the brink of bankruptcy. Postmus and Biane were vulnerable to that blackmail because they were, respectively at that time, the chairman and vice chairman of the county board of supervisors and the chairman and vice chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. After Postmus, Biane and Ovitt on November 28, 2006 voted to enter into the $102 million settlement, the indictment alleged, between March 2007 and the end of June 2007, the Colonies Partners endowed political action committees controlled by Postmus, Biane, Erwin and Kirk with $100,000 each. Prosecutors maintained the donations to Postmus and Biane were bribes provided in return for their votes in support of the settlement and that the $100,000 donation to Kirk’s political action committee was likewise a bribe made in exchange for his having delivered Ovitt’s vote in favor of the settlement. Kirk, as Ovitt’s chief of staff, had been Ovitt’s primary political advisor.
Postmus’ vote in favor of the settlement had come when he was a lame duck as a member of the board of supervisors. Three weeks previously, on November 7, 2006, he had been elected county assessor. In 2007, after he assumed the position of assessor, he upped the number of assistant county assessors from one to two and installed both Erwin and a close friend and political associate, 23-year-old Adam Aleman, into those positions. In the ensuing 18 months, Postmus slipped further into the morass of drug addiction. The county assessor’s office, into the management echelon of which Postmus had made a series of no fewer than 11 political appointments of friends and associates who had virtually no real estate, appraising or taxation policy/regulation expertise, became a hotbed of partisan political activity, promoting the Republican Party, Republican causes and certain Republican candidates. An investigation into this activity by the district attorney’s office began in 2007, and in 2008 events overtook Aleman, who was called before a grand jury to be questioned about the goings-on in the assessor’s office. Panicked, Aleman had an office employee alter some internal assessor’s office documents, destroyed the hard drive in a county-issued laptop and then lied in his testimony to the grand jury. Ultimately, all of these actions were detected by district attorney’s office investigators and Aleman was arrested and charged with a variety of crimes in July 2008. By November 2008, Aleman had begun cooperating with prosecutors, including recording conversations with others, among them Postmus, helping at first to assemble a case against members of the assessor’s office engaged in political activity on county time using county facilities that was unrelated to the assessor’s official function. Subsequently, Aleman provided information to district attorney’s office investigators with regard to events prior to and after the $102 million settlement of the litigation brought by the Colonies Partners against the county, which he said involved efforts to intimidate, threaten, and blackmail Postmus and Biane to extort from them support of the lawsuit settlement, followed by the provision of kickbacks after the settlement, disguised in the form of political donations.
Aleman pleaded guilty to four felony charges in July 2009 and agreed to testify against any others involved in illegal activity about which he had knowledge. Based in large measure on information supplied by Aleman, the district attorney’s office in 2009 charged Postmus with misuse of his authority as assessor in allowing the office to be used for unauthorized purposes and with misappropriation of public funds. In February 2010, again based to a considerable degree on information provided by Aleman, the district attorney’s office in conjunction with the California Attorney General’s Office charged both Postmus and Erwin with conspiracy, fraud, involvement in an extortion and bribery scheme, misappropriation of public funds, engaging in a conflict of interest as public officials, tax evasion and perjury related to the Colonies Partners lawsuit settlement and its aftermath.
Postmus, who had been driven to resigning as assessor in February 2009 in the wake of public revelations about his drug use, by early 2011 was running out of options and money. At that point, with Farquhar representing him with regard to the charges growing out of the Colonies Lawsuit settlement matter and Levine representing him with regard to the issues relating to his stewardship of the assessor’s office, Postmus entered into the aforementioned plea arrangement on the assessor’s office corruption case, the Colonies Partners lawsuit settlement case and a separate charge relating to drug possession, a total of 14 felonies and a single misdemeanor.
Since 2011, Postmus has been a free man despite his conviction, though the resolution of his criminal case yet hung over his head, and the adverse publicity had ruined any prospect that he might remain in politics. His guilty plea on the conflict of interest charge legally prohibits him from holding elective office.
In January 2017, the criminal case against Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk went to trial after numerous motions, rulings, appeals and delays. A total of 39 witnesses were heard from during the course of the case. The lion’s share of those testified during January, February, March and April, setting the table for Postmus and Aleman, who were the star witnesses, to begin their testimony in May 2017. During his first three days of testimony under direct examination from May 1 through May 3, Postmus replicated the key elements of the prosecution narrative. In the latter half of 2006, Erwin, working on behalf of Burum and the Colonies Partners, Postmus testified, had threatened to expose elements of both his and Biane’s personal lives in an effort to persuade them to support the settlement. And Burum had promised to support him in either or both future political and business endeavors once the settlement was out of the way, he said. Moreover, Postmus said, he believed the $102 million paid out to the Colonies Partners was ridiculously more than the development company was due. The threats and promises of reward, he testified, along with the desire to put the whole thing behind him prompted the settlement. And after the settlement was in place, Postmus testified, the Colonies Partners had come through with $100,000 for him in the form of two separate $50,000 donations to political action committees he had control over.
But thereafter, the defense was given an opportunity to cross examine Postmus and controvert the prosecution’s version of events he had supported. Particularly under the withering questioning of Burum’s attorney Jennifer Keller, Postmus began to go sideways, and he testified that he had been intimidated by the district attorney’s office investigators to meet their expectations of what they needed to make the case against the others. Keller and the other defense attorneys in the case also drove home for the two juries hearing the case – one deciding the fate of Burum, Biane and Kirk and the other sitting in judgment over Erwin – that Postmus was in the throes of methamphetamine addiction at the time of the events in question, rendering his memory unreliable and leaving him vulnerable to manipulation by the prosecution.
After eight months, the trial drew to a close with Burum, Biane and Kirk being exonerated on all of the charges against them and Erwin’s jury deadlocking, followed by the district attorney’s office dismissing the case against Erwin. At the time of that dismissal, district attorney Mike Ramos stated publicly, “Bill Postmus’ unexpected testimony on cross-examination at the last trial conflicted with his grand jury testimony, his statement to the FBI, and multiple interviews with the district attorney’s office.”
Ramos’ statement was a prime indicator that the district attorney’s office was opposed to adhering to that provision in the plea agreement with Postmus which called for dismissing eleven of the felony charges against him and a commensurate lessening of his sentence in return for his testimony and cooperation with the prosecution. Thus, all appearances are that the district attorney’s office is set to keep all 14 felony convictions against Postmus intact as part of the assessment of his guilt and proper level of punishment, and it will seek a substantial sentence for Postmus of several years in prison. Moreover, there was indication that Postmus has lost faith in Levine and Farquhar, based upon contact between Levine, one of Postmus’s attorneys, and prosecutor Lewis Cope, as well as Judge Smith. Cope prosecuted Postmus and was also the district attorney’s office’s lead member of the joint San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office/California Attorney General’s Office team that prosecuted Burum, Biane, Kirk and Erwin. Smith, a former prosecutor, was the judge overseeing the case against Postmus as well as that against Burum, Biane, Kirk and Erwin. In this way, Smith has been vantaged to have seen Postmus’ testimony in the trial firsthand, allowing him to assess whether Postmus adhered to the commitment he made in his 2011 plea arrangement.
Smith granted Postmus’ dismissal of Levine and Farquhar as his attorneys and allowed him to substitute Lawrence in as his new counsel. He further granted, somewhat reluctantly, Lawrence’s request for a delay to allow him to review materials relating to the case. Smith noted that there had been numerous continuances prior to the criminal trial in which Postmus was to testify, ultimately delaying the date for sentencing. Smith said continuances of that nature and duration would not be appropriate for a sentencing hearing. Smith continued the sentencing hearing until April 27, at which point there is to be a hearing on the plea withdrawal.
Though the court’s on-line data base relating to the case against Postmus shows the notation “probation officer’s report received” on January 16, 2018 with the comment “placed in S21 JA bin,” indication in court was that Postmus has not met with probation officers and had not scheduled an interview with the San Diego County Probation Department, which is to prepare Postmus’ pre-sentencing probation report. Smith ordered Postmus to have an interview scheduled with the probation department by today, January 26.
The prospect of Postmus withdrawing his plea presents both a dilemma and opportunity for San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, who is scheduled to stand for reelection this year. In some quarters Ramos was praised and in others vilified for the prosecution of Burum, Biane, Kirk and Erwin. Some saw the prosecution as an earnest effort to rein in political corruption and the county’s notorious pay-to-play culture of governance, while others saw it as an example of prosecutorial overreach. Ramos suffered a setback with the acquittals of Burum, Biane and Kirk and the failure to get a conviction of Erwin. If Postmus succeeds in withdrawing his plea and insists on going to trial, depending on the timing involved, Ramos could use the attention his office’s active prosecution of the once-powerful political figure as a tool to capture reelection to the office he first won in 2002. Nevertheless, the case is fraught with hazard for Ramos, who, like Postmus, is and was a member of the political establishment that has played fast and loose with the law and ethical standards in San Bernardino County for generations.
Mark Gutglueck

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